1. The Gift Economy of Creative Writing
McSweeney’s, one of my favorite magazines, is currently holding a fiction contest for undergraduate and graduate students. The winner receives $500. Submitters must pay a $55 entry fee. Critic Ron Charles says the hefty fee “passes the smell test because everyone who enters gets a year-long subscription to McSweeney’s, which normally costs $60.” He’s correct about the subscription cost, but assumes students who submit work to literary magazines also subscribe to those magazines. I hope that working writers financially support literary magazines, but don’t expect the same of students.
I feel guilty telling students to subscribe to literary magazines, particularly if that money is coming from their own pockets. Literary magazines typically request that submitters become familiar with their publications. They suggest writers purchase an issue, or better yet, subscribe. This mantra is repeated by writers, including myself. But such mantras, like supposed writing rules, need to be occasionally reconsidered. Of course a writer should be familiar with a magazine before submitting. But the economy of literary magazines is weak, and needs some interrogation. First of all, is it unreasonable to hope that a major American literary magazine could offer a larger monetary prize for such a high entry fee?
My questions extend beyond this single contest. Should a writer submit to a literary magazine that only “pays” in contributor copies? What does it mean that we, in the literary community, have accepted lack of monetary payment as commonplace? Does literary citizenship benefit a certain class of writers and academics, particularly those on the tenure track, for whom continual publication is a professional necessity?
These are exactly the type of conversations that I have in my writing classrooms–and I teach high school students. Granted, I wait until my advanced course, but from September through June, my students read widely and write often, and they also learn about the business of creative writing.
Creative writing should be taught as an art, and as a business. A creative writing program that only includes the former can unwittingly reinforce romantic stereotypes of writing. A young student might major in creative writing. She could become a wonderful poet, and a well-read critic. But she needs to know that poetry doesn’t pay the bills. This is the inside joke of creative writing programs in America. We know creative writing doesn’t make money, and yet we continue to graduate talented writers with no business acumen. At best, it is misguided. At worst, it is fraudulent.
Let me be clear that I do not think there is a vast creative writing conspiracy, filled with professors who don’t care about their students. I have only encountered compassionate, knowledgeable professors in this discipline. But I do think some self-reflection is in order. Few other academic programs are marketed or discussed in such spiritual terms. Writing students are given “time” to write, to find themselves. While feeling almost new age in its promises, creative writing speak retains working-class metaphors. Writers must be agrarian when they “cut the chaff.” They are to be craftsmen and craftswomen, carpenters of words. If writers are spoken to as skilled artisans, it should follow that they not only produce beautiful and useful creations, but that they also know how to sell those creations. This does not happen. It is reasonable to expect that graduates of a discipline understand the economic realities of that discipline.
An apprentice artisan observes the economic realities of his or her discipline. My father and grandfather were carpenters. They built homes and remodeled bathrooms. They worked when other people slept or relaxed. They had to create things that were beautiful and useful in order to make money to help feed their families. Their profession required the synthesis of artistry and practicality.
Could writers learn from carpenters? I think so, but in ways less metaphorical than literal. Charles Blackstone, the managing editor of Bookslut and author of the novel Vintage Attraction, thinks writers need to know more about the business of their art. He says during the days of postal submissions, writers often had to read “an issue or two of the publications to which they submitted, mainly due to the fact that that was largely how anyone knew about what journals were out there.” Now writers unfamiliar with the submission process can sometimes produce “absurd results.”
Becoming a realist takes time. When Blackstone “was teaching, not that far from being a student myself, I believed that it was all about the art, and that beautiful sentences made work publishable, marketplace be damned, and so on. My years of publishing my own books and editing Bookslut has only reinforced the folly of this kind of romantic thinking. I now know that platform is king.” Often writers–and teachers of writing–forget “everyone still has profit and loss to consider. There’s no getting around that. Without grants and donors, the literary altruists would be out of business too. There has to be a reasonable expectation that something’s going to make some kind of return on investment in order to justify the risk.” When Blackstone received unsolicited submissions of book galleys from publishers, he “could fill a fairly long and wide dining table in about two weeks.” And I didn’t even give my address out to a lot of publicists.” Most of those books weren’t right for Bookslut to cover.
Blackstone thinks “the Internet has made publicists careless and inefficient, just as it has aspiring writers.” So what can be done? Blackstone thinks writers need to learn independently. As a writer, he “paid attention to rejections and tried to free myself from the delusion that my work was brilliant and misunderstood as quickly as possible. I worked to find my own answers.”
I agree with Blackstone, and that’s a problem for me as a teacher. I know that my students have to fail to succeed. Although I was lucky to attend creative writing programs that familiarized students with the business of writing, I was never coddled. I come from a blue-collar Catholic aesthetic. There is a difference between “good works” and, well, work. You get paid money for work. That is why I cringe when I see writing “jobs” shared online, followed by the inevitable admission that “we are unable to pay.” I know young writers have to work their way up the ladder, but more often the business of writing looks like writers climbing those rungs to nowhere. It has been said that poetry, in particular, is a gift economy. Unfortunately, that gift benefits readers and writers less than it perpetuates the creative writing system, a system that makes promises it is unable to keep.
2. A Checklist for Teaching the Business of Creative Writing
How can we prepare students for the reality of this profession? I spoke with other teachers who engage the business element of the art in their courses. Mary Biddinger teaches a graduate course as part of the NEOMFA (Northeast Ohio MFA) program titled “MFA Craft and Theory of Poetry: Revising, Editing, Publishing.” Biddinger finds that “revealing the working stages of a manuscript from draft to shelf” helps demystify publishing, and “shows students that revision skills, and active reading, are tools valued beyond the classroom.” She shares galley proofs of new books from the Akron Series in Poetry, as well as typeset pages from her own forthcoming books or journal publications. Writing students need to see their teachers as working writers, and to see publication as a meticulous, collaborative, and often slow process.
At James Madison University, Jay Varner includes the professional world of writing in his introductory creative non-fiction course. Students read “pieces about the actual business of writing,” including “No” and “Yes” by Brian Doyle, “Diary of a Mad Fact Checker” by James Pogue, and “Seven Years as a Freelance Writer, or How to Make Vitamin Soup” by Richard Morgan. Biddinger, Varner, and all the other teachers I spoke with stressed that a “fundamental understanding of both the form [across genres] and the process of creating [literature] comes first,” but discussion of the business elements of writing is necessary to debunk myths. Varner’s students are “routinely shocked that months of work on an essay would net them $50” and contributor copies. They are also surprised to learn that “slick magazines might pay them several thousand–but once the process and time spent on a project is explained, they are surprised for other reasons.”
Catherine Pierce, co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University, avoids business talk in introductory courses, instead saving her “professionalization unit for the last few weeks of the semester” within an advanced poetry workshop. Students present research about a literary magazine they enjoy. Afterward, they submit a packet of poems to one of the markets researched by their peers. Pierce thinks “having this as a requirement of the class helps to alleviate the anxiety many students feel about sending out their work for the first time,” and it gives her the “opportunity to talk candidly about rejection.”
This sense of toughness might be lost on a generation of students raised on rubrics. Perhaps more than any other discipline, students must learn that there is a profound difference between being a successful student writer and a successful professional writer. Students receive grades, which are meant to be reflections of growth and mastery of material. The relationship between writer and teacher and writer and editor is not comparable. Magazine editors might begin as purists, but even purists need to eat. Editors want to sell magazines, gain advertising revenue, and attract the best writers. As students, all of us have moments where we did just enough to earn a grade. Students need to know that as writers, they must be excellent to even have a shot.
Kris Bigalk stresses this transition from student to independent writer in a course within Hamline University’s MFA program. Her students “develop short and long-term artist development plans, in which students identify their artistic strengths and weaknesses, ways they wish to grow as writers once they leave the program, and publication and career goals related to writing.” Many students “have a hard time leaving the role of ‘student’ and moving into the role of ‘artist,’ where they must manage their own development.” Students read biographies of writers to see how a writer’s career develops, and “how that development is often independent of the employment that sustains them.”
In a lecture given to students in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, Patrick Madden and Sue William Silverman discuss this “slow and steady path” to magazine and book publication. Madden focuses on the magazine end, and advises that since so much is beyond the control of writers, they should focus on taking tangible steps. Students should read magazines for enjoyment, inspiration, but also as a form of reconnaissance. They can become part of the magazine publishing world by writing book reviews, conducting interviews, and joining the staff of a literary magazine (VCFA students work on Hunger Mountain).
It helps when teachers of the business of creative writing have worked as editors. Cara Blue Adams, former editor of The Southern Review and fiction editor of The Sonora Review, teaches at Coastal Carolina University. In one graduate course, “Forms of Fiction,” students consider “how to build a writing practice and write and publish a cohesive book–as opposed to crafting individual stories.” Students examine the “publication, marketing, and critical reception of the book side-by-side with the craft of writing.”
Adams notes “these questions are not directly addressed in graduate school. The assumption sometimes seems to be that simply reading books is enough to teach an apprentice writer how to write a book, and that each person must forge a writing practice and learn about the publication process for him- or herself. People sometimes say apprentice writers are not yet ready to think about publication. I disagree. Guided attention to these questions does much to help students to develop a plan to get to where they would like to be.”
Her useful approach mediates between the creative and the realistic by helping “students to question how other writers have carved out time to write by reading interviews with practicing writers and studying their lives. This is often tied in interesting ways to those writers’ aesthetic choices: their chosen forms, their material, their themes. We also learn about the various economies at play in the writing world through reading and discussion. Writing doesn’t happen in an economic vacuum. Nor does publication. Studying the context in which writing is produced and [how it] finds readers allows students to productively think through the dialogue between their own lives and their writing practice.”
She recommends two books as case studies: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Victoria Chang’s The Boss, noting “both writers have jobs aside from writing–teaching at a number of institutions, working in business–and both have children. Both reinvented their forms in light of strictures on their time. Offill wrote her novel while teaching and parenting, dismantling a more traditional novel in favor of a novel written in fragments to more accurately examine the ‘collision of art and life.’ Chang wrote her poetry collection while waiting for her daughter to finish her Saturday Chinese lessons.” These doses of reality are meant to strengthen, not dissuade, students. How can we not be honest with them?
We can start by being honest with ourselves, as teachers of this discipline. Here is a checklist of 10 skills related to the business of creative writing that students should have when they graduate.
Graduates of creative writing programs should be able to do the following:
1. Identify the aesthetics of contemporary literary magazines, both print and online.
2. Contribute to the production of a literary magazine or blog, either as a submission reader, editor, designer, or by marketing on social media.
3. Prepare a manuscript for magazine submission, including industry standard formatting and a cover letter, as well as gain proficiency with an electronic submission system, such as Submittable.
4. Prepare a manuscript for book submission (arranging stories/essays/poems in a collection, or writing a query letter/synopsis for novel/memoir manuscript).
5. Pitch article/essay ideas as a freelance writer.
6. Apply close reading and editing skills learned during workshops toward copyediting.
7. Identify the language of contemporary publishing (from how genres are catalogued to the differences between independent and self-publishing).
8. Prepare a résumé/CV that highlights their writing skills and experiences.
9. Write a book review.
10. Prepare proposals for panels at conferences and other events, as well as draft grants for fellowships or funding opportunities.
3. Our Responsibilities to Students
There is no one path to success in creative writing, as there is no prototypical student of the discipline. Enormous demographic and pedagogical differences exist among undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs. A single classroom will contain novices and veterans. Alexander Chee, currently a visiting writer at UT Austin, recalls that when he was a student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, many students published in magazines, but only one or two of his peers had sold or published novels. When he returned as an instructor, two of his students had the same agent as him. Iowa’s pedigree aside, Chee’s point is well-taken. Rising writers have access to more information, faster, but they still need guidance. Chee reflects on taking a course with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan in 1989. Dillard used the “Best American anthologies as a roadmap to contemporary publishing.” She told students to see where essays or stories in the anthologies were originally published, and if the work’s style neared their own, remember the magazine as a possible market.
Such legwork might seem antiquated in the days of resources like Poets & Writers and Duotrope, but I fear that ease of information has enabled laziness. In an essay on her site, “Last Lecture: Am I a writer?”, Cathy Day offers some tough love for students. Day believes a “writing apprenticeship is about 5-10 years long . . . [starting when students take] writing seriously–meaning you stop thinking of writing as homework and start incorporating it into your daily life.” I can appreciate Day’s sentiment. Often students want to simply publish a book, and do so for the wrong reasons. There is a time and place to introduce the business of writing to students, and it should not happen before they are competent storytellers.
But if we don’t talk about the business of creative writing, we perpetuate the myth that money always stains art. Does it often? Of course. Yet pretensions toward artistic purity hurt students. Writing can become a perpetual unpaid internship. Doing something “for the love of it” has made countless people–not the least of whom are teachers–see their generosity and good nature be rewarded with mediocre pay and respect. I owe it to my students to get them ready for the professional world of writing. If they ignore my advice, that is their problem. We should talk about money with creative writing students because, even though we wish it were different, money equals value in our culture. If you doubt that, try buying your next dinner with a well-recited poem.
I need my students to know that they will likely struggle every step of this way in this business. They must be shrewd and determined and aware. But when they close the door and go to their writing desk, they must be generous, sensitive, and open to the mystery of this art. It is the responsibility of writing teachers to help students become better on the page, but also to teach them what to do with those pages. Many students will fold those pages and put them in drawers. They will be better readers and more careful thinkers, but will never publish their work. But we do owe those students who want to publish–the ones who are willing to fight–a little training for their real battles.
Image: Unsplash/Jeffrey Hamilton.